How Anti-Trans Legislation Affects College Students

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  • A record 100-plus anti-transgender bills have been introduced this year in the U.S.
  • These bills will impact trans college students in areas like academics and mental health.
  • Colleges can support trans students and staff by working to eliminate the barriers they face.

We are less than halfway through 2021, and this year has already weighed heavily on transgender people in the U.S., especially trans youth and Black and brown trans women and girls.

A record amount of anti-transgender legislation has swept the country. Over 100 anti-trans bills have been introduced in more than 30 states – eclipsing 2020's record of 79. And many have passed, further restricting trans people's — especially minors' — lives.

So far this year, over 100 anti-trans bills have been introduced in more than 30 states – eclipsing 2020’s record of 79.

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The majority of these bills seek to ban trans youth from participating in sports, while a large portion disrupt access to gender-affirming medical care, including criminalizing doctors for providing this care. Other bills include barring the updating of birth certificates, forcing teachers to out trans students to their parents, and prohibiting teaching about trans people and related topics.

These bills will have long-lasting effects on trans college students, in areas including, but not limited to, athletics, mental health, academics, and safety.

The Role of Colleges in Supporting Trans Students

Higher education institutions should closely examine how their own policies, practices, curricula, facilities, and employees might perpetuate the binary gender discourse underlying the transphobic efforts of certain state legislators.

College and university administrators have both the opportunity and a responsibility to decide how they'll support trans students and employees, and what measures they will take to ensure their well-being and abilities to be students and do the work they were hired to do.

School officials should also determine how they will deal with the bureaucratic barriers and institutional biases trans people encounter (e.g., through forms, residence halls, organizations, and identification) that further the daily violence they face.

Finally, as educational institutions for the public good, there is an added responsibility to affect social change by shifting the public discourse across communities and industries, especially in medicine, law, politics, and education.

4 Ways Anti-Trans Legislation Impacts College Students

The anti-trans legislation introduced by lawmakers aims to restrict trans college students' lives in areas like sports and athletics, health, academics, and safety.


On June 1, the first day of LGBTQ+ Pride Month, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed the first anti-LGBTQ+ bill to pass in the state since 1997. The deceptively titled "Fairness in Women's Sports Act" made Florida the eighth state in 2021 (for a total of nine, with Idaho passing its bill in 2020) to prohibit trans kids from participating in sports.

While most anti-trans sports bills are focused on K-12 schools, some also extend to postsecondary education. Even the K-12 bans mean trans students are less likely to be competitive at the college level for varsity teams or recruited by coaches.

When trans students do not have equal access to athletics or are misgendered by others in order to participate, they learn to assume that athletics, fellow athletes, and coaches will be unwelcoming. This reduces the likelihood that they'll participate in intramural sports or access the campus gym.

Physical and Mental Health

Due to transphobia and structural oppression, suicide ideation and attempts are already demonstrably higher in trans teens and adults compared to their cisgender peers.

For example, after Arkansas passed a ban on gender-affirming healthcare for minors this year, the state saw a "rash of teen suicide attempts" and anxious families looking to move so as not to disrupt their child's care.

Lower self-esteem can impact trans students’ efficacy in advocating for themselves against policies, practices, and people that harm and/or exclude them.

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Making transition care illegal will lead people to access care elsewhere, resulting in unmonitored hormone therapy, says Dr. Ricardo Correa, a board member of GLMA: Health Professionals Advancing LGBTQ Equality. It will also force trans college students to travel to neighboring states, making them invest time, money, and energy that could go toward their academics.

Lastly, by taking away sports, trans students lose an important catalyst of positive health outcomes. There is wide evidence that sports are linked to better mental health and self-esteem in youth and young adults, particularly when it comes to decreasing symptoms of depression.

High school students who play team sports report better self-rated mental health and lower perceived stress as young adults than those who do not. Lower self-esteem can also impact trans students' efficacy in advocating for themselves against policies, practices, and people that harm and/or exclude them.

Academics and Curricula

Dr. Izzy Lowell, who champions trans healthcare through QMed, told NBC News that trans students experience symptoms when they're forced to stop hormone treatments that result in them "doing badly in school." These include irritability, reduced emotional well-being, inability to concentrate, and low energy.

At a curricular level, although inclusion of trans people and topics in K-12 are already rare and often stigmatized, laws banning teachers from addressing this will further reduce the trans-affirming knowledge with which students enter college.

This exclusion from the curriculum alienates trans students from academics and continues their cisgender peers' lack of education about their realities.

Safety and Anti-Trans Violence

The recent barrage of anti-trans bills are troublesome not just because they criminalize trans people's existence, but also because they galvanize transphobia in the communities where trans people live. This empowers harassment, intimidation, and sexual and physical violence, including in schools.

Because the bills are almost entirely focused on trans girls and women, they perpetuate the false narrative that (1) trans women are "really men"; (2) that these "men" are invading women's spaces; and (3) that trans women are a danger to cisgender women.

These are the same tropes that drove states' attempts to pass anti-trans bathroom bills a few years ago. They further place trans women, especially Black and brown trans women, in danger of experiencing sexual and physical violence.

Already 2021 is on track to being the deadliest year for trans people in the U.S. since recording began. Each year, including this one, at least 80% of known murder victims are Black and brown trans women.

Trans Activists Continue to Combat Anti-Trans Bills

These 100-plus bills in legislatures across the country are only the most recent, albeit most concentrated and organized, manifestations of what author Dean Spade calls "administrative violence" — laws and policies enacted that regulate and restrict access to resources, services, and safety based on identities categorized by the state.

Trans people in the U.S. have contended with administrative violence our entire lives, despite shifts in policies, visibility, media representation, and cisgender people's perceptions. And just as before, trans people are at the forefront of fighting these bills.

Trans people in the U.S. have contended with administrative violence our entire lives, and just as before, trans people are at the forefront of fighting these bills.

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Team USA athlete Chris Mosier curates a map focused on the anti-trans sports bills, along with scripts and action items to advocate against them. And ACLU attorney Chase Strangio, who has been on the forefront of the legal battles across states, is keeping the public updated with developments and action directives.

In April, Dr. Harper Keenan, Dr. Z Nicolazzo, and Dr. Kevin Kumashiro commemorated International Trans Day of Visibility by sending an open letter to President Joe Biden, signed by 17,300 educators and scholars, to uphold trans people's rights and dignity.

These activists are joined by hundreds of trans people in each of these states, battling to defeat anti-trans bills despite the mental and physical scars, along with their family members, friends, and other advocates.

Feature Image: Julie Bennett / Stringer / Getty Images News / Getty Images North America